If you are looking for a spring football definition of critical, then all you have to do is look at the situation at linebacker for the Florida Gators. The Gators have the daunting task of replacing three starters, a difficult under any circumstance but complicated because there are only four scholarship linebackers on hand this spring.
The Gators had what was probably the best defense in the nation last year, in part because of the steady play of linebackers Earl Everett, Brandon Siler and Brian Crum. Everett started four years on the weak side; Siler started three in the middle; and Crum was a backup as a junior that started all 14 games as a senior.
Their replacements are talented but very young. Besides a lack of depth this spring, there will be a lack of experience. The two-deep roster for the spring took a hit when Eric Sledge transferred and Jon Demps was dismissed from the team. The recruiting class of 2007 will add four linebackers to the roster but they won’t be with the team until fall practice begins in August.
The anchor of the linebacker corps, out of necessity, will be sophomore Brandon Spikes of Shelby, NC. Spikes saw action as a true freshman mostly as a strongside backup to Crum but with Siler gone to the NFL, he will move full-time to the middle. Spikes doesn’t have many snaps under his belt, at the same time he saw some action in critical situations last year when Siler was sidelined with an ankle sprain. He has exceptional size, speed, and hitting ability to be a major player at the college level.
Like Spikes, Duston Doe of Jasper, FL gained experience as a true freshman backing up Everett. He saw plenty of action on special teams, however. Doe is a tad undersized, but he has good speed and he plays the game at a very high level of intensity. He really is a picture of persistence with the way he pursues and attacks the ball carrier. He is in the mold of Mike Nattiel a former All-SEC and NFL linebacker for the Gators.
Red-shirt sophomore Ryan Stamper of Jacksonville is the only other Gator linebacker with any experience, He will most likely start the spring at the top of the strongside linebacker depth chart. Stamper has yet to make a name for himself and this spring he will see plenty of competition from redshirt freshman A.J. Jones. Florida’s coaching staff hopes Stamper will use the abundance of snaps he gets in the spring to develop either as a starter or a backup that could see action at all three linebacker positions.
Jones (Tampa, FL) is an athletic headhunter that would have seen the field as a true freshman until he broke his foot. Jones flies around like a strong safety and hits like a truck. He is probably the most athletic of the linebackers on campus this spring. He needs to get healthy and produce for this team if the Gators want to have a good year on defense in 2007.
These four will have to stay healthy and learn quick until Steve Wilks (Lakeland), John Jones (Sarasota), Brandon Hicks (Jacksonville), and Lorenzo Edwards (Orlando) arrive on campus in June to fortify the troops at the position. This spring will be huge for all four and they will and have to form the core of the linebacker play for 2007.